At sunup the other day, a white pigeon flew through the open window of my bathroom and settled, cooing, on the edge of the sink. A good omen, said my young translator, Ramesh. An invitation, I thought. I locked the door to my rental room and set out on foot down the somewhat paved sidewalk toward the Blue Mosque.
A local legend says that after Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, was struck down by a poison arrow during a Ramadan prayer south of Baghdad, his disciples tied his body to the back of a she-camel and sent it east to prevent his enemies from desecrating his remains. (Iraqi Muslims dispute this story, saying that Ali’s body never left Iraq, where, they insist, it is buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.) After a 1,300-mile trek through modern-day Iraq and Iran, the camel — the story continues — finally collapsed of fatigue and thirst in what today is the blue heart of Mazar-e-Sharif, and Ali was interred here, giving the city its name: “Mazar-e-sharif” means “tomb of the saint” in Farsi. The double-domed mosque, tiled in kaleidoscopic patterns of cobalt, ocher, white, and turquoise, went up in the 15th century; 10,000 white pigeons are said to roost among its arches and columns.
Every evening at 5:30, Karim Ahmad Qasim, the chief muezzin of this mosque, lowers his face to the microphone wired to the minarets’ speakers, and graces the city with the delicate arpeggios and tremolos of his singing.
Karim Ahmad Qasim is 79 years old; he has been a muezzin at the Blue Mosque forever. Abdul Ansari, an imam there, tells me the muezzin keeps strong by eating sheep fat (“We worry about cholesterol, but he just grows healthier every day”) and walking three or four brisk laps around the perimeter of the mosque each day through the neatly trimmed garden perfumed by roses and wild black cherries. He hasn’t seen a doctor in years. He has made the hajj twice since 2001. He spends his afternoons in a tiny L-shaped room with whitewashed walls at the base of a minaret, which he enters through a narrow sky-blue doorway that is less than four feet high, like a prop from Alice in Wonderland.
I met Muezzin Karim in November of 2001, when I came to Mazar-e-Sharif for the first time. I was staying at a hotel across the street from the mosque; each evening, the intricate syncopations and quartertones of his prayer coiled into my unheated, dark, filthy room, filling it with beauty. Think John Coltrane improvising the Koran. I asked to interview the muezzin; he agreed. We sat on damp mattresses beneath the vaulted ceiling of the mosque office and talked about music, and about blending traditional melodies and jazz with freedom unthinkable anywhere in Afghanistan but in Mazar-e-Sharif, the most cosmopolitan city in the nation.
“When I sing,” the old man told me then, “I do whatever I want.”
I asked whether his singing had ever gotten him in trouble with the puritan Taliban. The muezzin flashed a quick, mischievous smile, and winked at me.
“They couldn’t tell me how to sing,” he said. His small, birdlike body rested against the wall with such tranquility he seemed to glow. I could feel his contentment. “They didn’t dare.”
For days now I have been trying to leave Mazar-e-Sharif and head east, through Baghlan, to Kunduz and Takhar provinces, to write about the return to northern Afghanistan of the Taliban and the Islamic militia of the rebellious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and to visit old friends with whom I have lost touch over the years. But how to get there? German troops are dying almost weekly in clashes with armed gangs; last week, someone kidnapped five Afghan U.N. workers in Baghlan. Trying to get a sense of security on the road I hope to take, I have been sifting through accounts of drivers, travelers, journalists, and various security officials about the extent of unrest. Each story promises new dangers, each rumor contradicts the last; the confusion is torturous, exhausting, mind-numbing.
As I guide the protesting white pigeon from her porcelain roost and out the bathroom window, I recall the sensation I had the time I spoke to the old muezzin all those years ago. Serenity: a scarcity in war zones. I need it now.
At the outer walls of the shrine, I remove my shoes, hand them to a boy in exchange for a small ticket stub, and join hundreds of pilgrims who have come to see the mosque. Men in suits, men in long robes, men in shalwar kameez. Women in dresses and headscarves; women in loose-fitting suits. Women in burqas eat potato chips on the steps of the mosque; when they are finished, they lift their burqas like brides’ veils to kiss each other goodbye on the cheek, three times. Children kick a pink rubber ball. Toddlers splash in the fountain for ablutions.
I pause to take a picture of a white pigeon. It takes me 10 minutes to get a shot I like. Pilgrims walk slowly around me. No one stares. No one asks why I’m here. We are all barefoot together in a place where pigeons are said to turn white in 40 days.
Then I circle the shrine, find the tiny blue door, and step inside.
The muezzin is reclining against a threadbare pillow beneath an unshaded fluorescent light bulb. The room smells like the cilantro he has brought to work in a plastic bag. An open book lies in front of him: a history of Sufi mystics. The skin on his face is so wrinkled it drapes over his eyelids; his beard is gray and white. I sit down on the mattress next to him and place my right hand, palm open, on my heart: the Afghan gesture of greeting, of thanks. I begin to introduce myself, but he waves me away with a small flick of his wrist. From beneath his droopy skin, he flashes me that boyish, bright smile.
“Why haven’t you visited for nine whole years?”
And I smile back at him, and my mind finally unknots, and I understand that I am crying.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.